The Top Five Women’s Swimming Performances from the Tokyo Olympics (Race Videos)

Jul 30, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Tatjana Schoenmaker (RSA) is congratulated by Kaylene Corbett (RSA) after winning the women's 200m breaststroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Tatjana Schoemaker (left) with South African teammate Kaylene Corbett after Schoenmaker won Olympic gold in the women's 200 breaststroke -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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The Top Five Women’s Swimming Performances from the Tokyo Olympics (Race Videos)

The Tokyo Olympics are finished, and now, swimming fans will spend years remembering and rewatching the many memorable moments from those nine days — although maybe no race from Tokyo will be re-watched as much as the unforgettable men’s 400 freestyle relay from the 2008 Olympics, when Jason Lezak ran down France’s Alain Bernard with an anchor split that remains the fastest in history.

Basically every gold-medal final at an Olympics is an amazing race in some manner, and there are a lot of races that were really difficult to leave off this list. But these are the top five single races from Tokyo and the race video for each one.

5. Lydia Jacoby’s Stunning 100 Breaststroke Gold Medal

No list of top performances from Tokyo would be complete without the women’s 100 breaststroke final, where 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby shocked the world by beating her heavily favored American teammate Lilly King and also new Olympic-record holder Tatjana Schoenmaker to win Olympic gold. Jacoby has burst onto the scene into the last year, only breaking 1:08 for the first time in the fall of 2020 — when it took 1:04.95 to win Olympic gold — and only becoming a serious contender to qualify for the Olympics in April. But during her rapid rise, Jacoby has typically been behind the field at the start before accelerating and passing her competitors down the stretch. So in the Olympic final, when shewas only a few tenths behind Schoenmaker and basically even with King at the halfway point, Jacoby had a shot. The result was the biggest upset in any women’s race at the Olympics.

4. Kaylee McKeown Just Off World Record in Highly-Anticipated 100 Backstroke

Only three women have ever cracked 58 in the women’s 100 backstroke — Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, the USA’s Regan Smith and Canada’s Kylie Masse — and all three were in the Olympic final. McKeown had broken the world record just a month earlier at Australia’s Olympic Trials, and Masse had also swum her best time in June, while Smith was aiming to recapture her record-breaking form from 2019 while entering the Olympic final as the top seed. Masse, the co-bronze medalist in the event in Rio five years earlier, went out quickly along with American Rhyan White, while Smith used a massive underwater effort off her turn to jump into the mix. But McKeown could not be touched on the back half, and she pulled away, narrowly missing her world record by two hundredths and claiming Olympic gold.

3. Australian Women Take Down 400 Freestyle Relay World Record

One of two women’s relay world records of the Tokyo Olympics came on Day One as Australia dominated the women’s 400 freestyle relay. Bronte Campbell (53.01) and Meg Harris (53.09) were fine on the opening two legs as Australia was narrowly ahead of Sweden when Emma McKeon went into the water. And McKeon, on her way to her first of seven medals in Tokyo, split 51.35 to give the Aussies a lead of more than two seconds before Cate Campbell, a four-time Olympian and one of history’s best relay performers, dove into the water. Campbell was more than a second off her best split on that leg, with a 52.24, but it was plenty to secure a gold medal by three seconds. Australia’s time of 3:29.69 made this group the first to ever break 3:30 in the 400 free relay.

2. Titmus vs. Ledecky

At Australia’s Olympic Trials in June, Ariarne Titmus swam a 3:56.90 in the 400 freestyle, the second-fastest time in history behind Katie Ledecky’s world record of 3:56.46 from the 2016 Olympics. A few days later, Ledecky swam more than four seconds behind that mark in winning the race at U.S. Olympic Trials. Titmus had shocked Ledecky to win the world title in the event in 2019, but Ledecky was battling illness at the time. Now, Titmus might have a real shot at Olympic gold, although certainly Ledecky would not give it up easily. The result was an incredible duel between two titans, with Ledecky holding a lead of around six tenths before Titmus started inching up on the sixth of eight laps. With 50 meters to go, Titmus took a very narrow lead, but Ledecky gave it every ounce of energy to try to get to the wall, but it was not enough. Titmus won gold in 3:56.69, the second-fastest time in history by just 0.23, and Ledecky was second in 3:57.36. The effort was phenomenal for both swimmers. Even in her silver-medal swim, Ledecky’s time was faster than any she had ever recorded aside from the world record — five years earlier.

1. Tatjana Schoenmaker Hits 2:18 200 Breaststroke

Tatjana Schoenmaker ended the 100 breaststroke as silver medalist and Olympic-record holder, so it was obvious that her 200 breaststroke had the potential to be really special. She was already one of the favorites for gold coming into the meet, so if her 100 was on point, her 200 surely would be as well. And then she nearly broke the world record in prelims, coming up just five hundredths short. Then Schoenmaker nearly broke the world record again in the semifinals, where she may well have broken the record if not for a very short finish. In the final, she got it done, dispatching American Lilly King after King rocketed ahead over the first 100 meters and pulling away down the stretch. Schoenmaker finished in 2:18.95 to knock off Rikke Moeller Pedersen’s eight-year-old record of 2:19.11.

After the race, Schoenmaker took about 15 seconds to collect her thoughts before she looked at the scoreboard to learn of her momentous accomplishment. Then, King, American bronze medalist Annie Lazor and Schoenmaker’s South African teammate Kaylene Corbett (fifth in the race) all celebrated together with a massive group hug, producing one of the indelible images of the Tokyo Olympics.

Honorable Mentions: It is really, really difficult to leave off Maggie MacNeil’s 100 butterfly from this list. Flying under the radar despite being the defending world champion in the event, MacNeil swam a 55.59 to beat out China’s Zhang Yufei for gold by five hundredths. It looked like a blanket finish coming down the stretch, but the 21-year-old Canadian got her hand on the wall first and moved to second-fastest ever in the event.

And each of MacNeil’s fellow medalists in the event also had a swim worthy of consideration for this list later in the Olympics: Zhang won the 200 butterfly in 2:03.86, moving to third all-time behind two supersuited efforts, and Emma McKeon took gold in the 100 freestyle in 51.96, the second-quickest time ever. And you cannot forget about China’s world-record breaking victory in the women’s 800 freestyle relay, where the silver medalist Americans and bronze medalist Australians were also under the previous world record. All worthy options for this list, but there could only be five.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Kudzai Makova

    Very tough to pick the top 5…. Just to highlight that there was also a world record in the women’s 4x200m freestlye where the Chinese ladies upset the favourites, Australia… That probably ranks as one of the biggest upsets of the games